Secular Political Ideology Vs. Biblical Moral Values: Continuing a Debate with Michael Lumish
This is my response -- part 2 -- of a debate with my friend Mike Lumish about political ideology, the Left-Right contest, Biblical values, and the battle of Good vs Evil. Read his thoughtful Part I here.
I'd like to thank you so much for accepting my challenge for us to engage on these issues in a public forum. You're someone whose work I continue to appreciate and who has earned my respect even though we hold some strong disagreements.
That's the realization I came to after reading your opening to this debate. It turns out that our differences are much deeper than I initially anticipated. This is all the better -- hopefully by the end of our discussion we'll have both moved closer to at, the very least, perhaps not agreeing but understanding each other better.
I think we have five substantive disagreements in my critique of your writer/blogger/activist approach. I'm going to frame each as a question, quote you, summarize our disagreement, and then explain my position.
1. Whom should pro-Israel and counter-Jihad activists try to reach?
Quoting now from your response, as each block quote will be:
I am a member of that list despite the fact that I am not a political conservative.
Not long ago David offered his criticism of my concerns. In a nutshell, David took me to task for encouraging my fellow liberals to understand that the rise of political Islam is dangerous to women and to gay people and to Jewish people and to all non-Muslims throughout the Middle East, if not the Islamic world, more generally.
[DS: the following is a quotation of me of from our listserv debate. By "old family" I mean the family I grew up in who do not share my politics but who still love and support me. My new family is the one I'm in now -- and my wife and our Siberian Husky Maura are too independent-minded to align with any political ideology.]
"It would be as if I decided that my primary goal in life was just to convert the postmodern secularist progressive pop culture polytheists of my friends and old family into conservatives."
Just why he makes this strange claim is beyond me.
My critique of you first began as a tactical one: you have stated that your primary mission as an activist in life is to bring the messages of counter-Jihad and pro-Israel policies to your fellow liberal and progressive Jews.
Our disagreement: I believe it's important to try and reach all human beings across the planet with the broad spectrum of arguments and ideas commonly understood as center-right, conservative-libertarian, Tea Party, classical liberal, the American/British Enlightenment, and especially Judeo-Christian and Biblical. With my new media activism I hope to influence 100% of the population, and not just the United States. According to US Demographics, in 2007 Jews made up 1.7% of the population. The percentage you are targeting -- those who are politically engaged and progressive -- couldn't make up more than a fourth or a third of that.
I guess my initial critique of you was somewhat inaccurate. I thought that by now, after all these years of Obama you would have finally moved out of the hybrid, trying-to-pick-and-choose-what-you-want-from-both-sides position. I'm too familiar with this ideological middle ground, as I passed through it too. So you can better understand why I have grown disillusioned with framing activism in secular ideological terms (Left vs Right) I'll describe my journey across the political spectrum over the last decade, which in some ways is similar to others who have shifted.
- Start leftist/progressive (generally disillusioned with the Democratic Party or sitting at the Al Sharpton/Dennis Kucinich children's table while the quasi-grown ups run the party) and naively believing some combination of: a belief in socialim, government regulation, dovish foreign policy, the United Nations, and above all else, the malevolence of conservatives who are the primary enemy of all progress and whose ideas are responsible for both unnecessary casualties of war all over the world and the health-related deaths of hard-working Americans who can't afford health insurance because of greedy corporations. We should primarily stop terrorism by just extending an olive branch to the Muslim world and admitting our century's worth of American, capitalist, globalist imperialism. And we should stop supporting Israel since they're the ones most responsible for all the problems in the Middle East since they're just too extreme with the Palestinians. And single-payer healthcare is the Holy Grail. I had a position comparable to this from 2003, freshman year of college, through about the end of 2007. Before going to college my political views were poorly defined and just the general, squishy baby boomer Clintonian liberalism of my parents.
- Gradually drift to the nebulous territory between progressive "liberal" and centrist "liberal" who is at least sane enough to try and implement their goals through the Democratic Party. (I always put the term in quotes when used in this context because I regard it as having been hijacked in order to deceive do-gooders.) Here one recognizes that full-blown socialism couldn't work in America and that we really do have to fight terrorists but that we have to do it better than the nuts on the Right who are "racist against Muslims." The difference between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the more centrist, Third Way, New Democrats of the 1990s has largely disappeared now. But it still existed some back in 2008 when I attached the "centrist liberal" label. I swam in these ideological seas and ended up voting for Obama because A) Andrew Sullivan convinced me he was a genuine centrist compromiser who was boing to end the baby boomer culture war, and B) I thought Sarah Palin was an idiot and "Christianist" radical who was just picked solely because she was an attractive woman. Mike, if you're still calling yourself a progressive it sounds like you're in territory similar to this.
- To the naive No Labels centrists (David Frum) -- those still resisting becoming conservatives and instead pursuing a utopian solution of ending political conflicts through checking the "extremists" supposedly on both sides who they ignorantly believe are morally equivalent. They especially delight in attacking Tea Partiers and all variety of "extremist" conservatives more than their Marxist Nation editor friends who praise their work. I wobbled around in this territory during 2009 (the year I started editing full time), stumbling out into the next category by the beginning of 2010. Slightly to the Right of this contingent is the wimpy Right that wants progressive friendship and approval (Joe Scarborough, David Brooks, John McCain above all others), and basically anyone that had anything substantive to do with the Bush administration and is still defending its entire agenda.
- A Libertarian-conservative Tea Partier -- Usually Tea Party/libertarian in economics and hawkish and pro-Israel, but still a "social liberal" indifferent to abortion, largely secular, and not really caring how coarsened mainstream culture has become. I was inspired into a Tea Party position -- as many Americans were -- by the horrific push for Obamacare. I was here for about 20 months and still retain Tea Party sympathies.
- Finally onto Reaganite conservative policies across the board, including social conservatism, which usually coincides with a conversion to serious Judaism, Christianity, or in my oddball case what I've described as Judeo-Christian Hermeticism. With the job switch to PJM in Fall 2011 came the opportunity to hit the reset button on how I organized my life. The realization came that I needed to return to a more diligent religious practice to be better equipped in the future when there were other life challenges like necessary job changes. See my piece in response to Walter Hudson, expressing my disagreement with Evangelical Christian theology and explaining the difference between individual Bible-based theologies, and universal Judeo-Christian values that can -- and should -- be embraced by peoples of all faiths. As I've returned to religious life, gradually much of my social "liberalism" has collapsed further. I'm pro-life and support the overturn of Roe v. Wade, not that I expect that alone to make much of a difference in the number of abortions that take place each year. This is more of a cultural battle to confront the truth about how unplanned pregnancies actually happen and the myriad of better options than abortion. But the most major shift that happened to me personally as my views changed is what David P. Goldman explains in the macro-context in How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too). People who do not believe in God do not reproduce. What's the point? The birthrates remain highest among seriously Jewish and Christian communities. Thus I've finally come to know for certain that I need to be a father someday and I must raise as many children as possible. It may be a dozen years or more before The Wife and I are ready but how long isn't important -- children being biologically ours is not a priority. So the war between Left and Right, Secular and Believer is thus much deeper than just economic and foreign policies. It goes to the structure and purpose of the family. (See James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus's America 3.0 to see the evidence that the nuclear family is the central engine that powered the triumph of the United States.) The cultural conflicts are between two different sets of morals. One that values creating nurturing families of strong individuals. The other that believes that "it takes a village." (When Hillary said that it takes a village was she also talking about the number of other women she would permit her husband to enjoy in what's really starting to become clear to everyone as an open marriage?) To secular liberals and even many libertarians these issues of values and character are irrelevant. (And even to so-called conservatives too who supported Newt Gingrich.) So what if the first family and the most influential couple in the Democratic Party are just in a career marriage? As long as they're "doing their job" then their personal lives are their own. No. Are you going to be OK if that's your daughter that Bill or Hillary picks as their next plaything?
So yes, bottom line: it doesn't have to take long to make these various shifts. It just depends on what experiences one has, how certain political and cultural stories impact you, and which thinkers and books cross your path that inspire you to see the world in whole new ways. But I wrote an article last summer explaining why we can't really provoke people to shift from one category to another. Trying to convert people from one stage to another is just impractical on so many levels: 7 Reasons Why The Right Should Not Seek to Convert The Left. The first item on that list basically summarizes my position: "7. There are More Than Enough Apolitical People Out There Whose Minds Remain Unconquered by the Left."
So Mike, while I remain mystified that you still regard yourself as in any way progressive/"liberal," we'll address this in more substance in a moment in the context of your other arguments. There are still a number of steps along the journey that you have yet to confront. And I hope you do, though perhaps you won't. Often times whether we do or not is largely outside our hands. Life has to give us each a kick in the ass to wake up and do the right thing.
While my quarrel with you now that I understand your position better is slightly different, the meat of it is still the same. I remain passionately engaged in Counter-Jihad and Pro-Israel new media activism -- more so than when we first crossed paths in 2010. Earlier this month I argued that Robert Spencer-style Counter-Jihad should form the basis of the next evolution into a Conservatism 3.0 that overcomes the errors of the naive corporatist baby-boomer professional conservatives.
But if I sought only to try to persuade those who came from the secular, culture-obsessed "liberal" ideology as me then I would be dramatically limiting the amount of potential readers I had to just one small slice of progressives. I don't think you got this point:
The fact of the matter is that the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East is of the foremost geo-political significance since the demise of the Soviet Union. The rise of the Brotherhood and political Islam, despite Morsi's defeat in Egypt, is something that we must discuss and address and oppose. Much of my writings center upon the fact that my fellow liberals absolutely refuse to even discuss this issue and it is an issue that is greatly in need of discussion.
David suggests that, in contrast to my work, his "writing and editing activism is aimed at EVERYONE, not just one small group."
I fail to see how the progressive-left, as a political movement, represents "one small group." It doesn't. David is a good man, but he is simply wrong. The progressive-left is a huge political movement that dominates politics and political discourse throughout Europe and the United States and I, in fact, am a member of that political inclination.
I suppose if you decided to focus on ALL progressives and leftists, that would be somewhat of an improvement over what you're doing now, though for the 7 reasons listed in that previous piece, I wouldn't condone it. My point was that you direct your activism at members of the group that you previously identified with, a smaller, particular niche of the Left -- center-Left Jews. How many people are there actually in the country who identify that way? Sure, the Democratic Party and so-called "liberalism" are more dominant among many people who identify as Jewish. But that doesn't mean that most of such Jews really care about either their politics or their religion all that much.
The activist core of engaged progressive/left Jews who you seek to reach with your writings are actually small in number -- just as, in the sentence you quoted, I emphasized that me choosing to exclusively focus on the postmodern, pop culture-obsessed community I came out of would similarly be a waste of time, if only on the numbers alone. To build a large enough political/cultural coalition to actually elect effective leaders to make things happen in the real world we have to reach out much more broadly than just our own neighborhoods.
2. Objective Values vs Subjective Values
It is because that I am an American liberal, and someone who marched against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I feel some responsibility for standing up against the Obama administration’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of political Islam.
David, however, feels that this is simply insufficient. He tells me that my,
“focus on politics doesn’t go deep enough. Left, Right, progressive, conservative — none of these ideologies matter if the person holding them does not really choose to believe in a transcendent God and thus Good and Evil.”
It is at this point, not surprisingly, that the conversation comes immediately to a grinding halt. I do not write about theology, although the history of religion is part of my academic background. When someone tells me that there is "Good" and there is "Evil" and that they stand for "Good" then there is nothing further to discuss, which is why it took me so long to finally respond to David.
Our disagreement: I believe in objective moral values, you, as a progressive, still choose to live according to subjective values. I have to be honest with you Michael. When I saw in your opening that you had put Good and Evil in quotes my heart literally sank.
Because in a sense you're right. If you do not believe that the concepts of Good and Evil can ever be applied to describe something without quotes around it then we are indeed at an impasse. And this is a roadblock that I've hit up so many times before that I put it on my list:
5. Evil Is Something That Cannot Be Explained to Those Who Do Not Know What It Is. It Can Only Be Experienced.
Be happy for your “liberal” friends. They’ve been blessed not to comprehend evil yet. They’re still living in the Garden of Eden. Good for them. Maybe they’ll be lucky and never have to put their ideas to the test. Maybe they’ll never experience what Irving Kristol talked about, what it means for a liberal to be “mugged by reality.” Maybe they’ll never have to look a real evil person in the eye and experience the pain they can cause.
Well, going against my own advice, I will now attempt to explain Good vs Evil and how it applies in a political context. When I say that Left vs Right, Democrats vs Republicans, Liberals vs Conservatives are no longer as important to me as Good vs Evil, Law vs Criminal, and Judeo-Christian vs Antisemite then this is how my perspective has shifted...
3. What is the difference between values and theology? And how are these applied toward shaping a political worldview?
David Swindle is someone who, unlike many people, has managed to expand his political horizons beyond what they once were. He no longer sees himself as primarily a partisan political fighter, but neither do I.
This is not the only thing that David and I have in common. During the Bush II years he and I were both primarily fighters for the Left. Now, unlike many others, we have both moved on, albeit in different directions. David now views politics through a lens of theology and I view politics through a lens of politics.
Our disagreement: We define "theology" differently. I do not view politics through the lens of theology. I view it through the lens of Good Vs. Evil. See last week's response to Walter for my discourse on the difference between values and theology. (Nutshell: "values" are how we use the Bible to value one concept as higher than another. It's the system one uses to determine Right from Wrong. How can one apply a Judeo-Christian, 10 Commandments, Moses as the Western leader par excellence, Biblical values approach to the current political scene? I am perhaps more harsh than some in my rhetoric, but my views are still within the conservative mainstream.)
What focusing on moral values translates into as a political perspective is that I genuinely, earnestly do regard the Democratic Party as a criminal conspiracy comprised of amoral antisemitic sociopaths most of whom have blood on their hands. Others who regard themselves primarily as conservatives tend to call this same group of people "liberals" and strategize ways to beat them politically. (Meanwhile Democrats come up with new methods for committing vote fraud.)
This criminal movement has existed since the days of its founder, the unpunished murderer Aaron Burr, as Michael Walsh demonstrates in his extraordinary polemic The People v. the Democratic Party.
So my primary objection to our political opponents is not that they have a bad foreign policy, or that they want to raise taxes too high to sabotage the economy, or that third trimester abortions have become sacrosanct. These are just symptoms of the disease, which lies deeper than politics. The differing of beliefs in objective vs subjective values does not just provoke us to come to different conclusions, it changes how we think often to such a degree that we cannot even communicate at all. My next point demonstrates how this disrupts your well-intentioned but, in my estimation, mostly ineffective pro-Israel new media activism.
[jwplayer config="pjm_lifestyle" mediaid="59480"]
4. Can facts and arguments persuade progressives to join the pro-Israel and Counter-Jihad causes?
I am in no position to tell anyone that they should not fight "evil," but I am in a position to tell my friends and associates, and anyone who will listen, that the movement for political Islam throughout the Middle East oppresses women, murders Gay people outright, is chasing Christians out of the area entirely, and seeks if not the domination and dhimmitude of the Jews, their annihilation as the herald of "Evil."
Our disagreement: I do not believe the facts of radical Islam's barbarism and Israel's moral high ground can persuade anyone committed to their progressive/leftist/Democrat identity. Modern day baby boomer "liberalism" is an amalgamation of a number of oft-conflicting tendencies. (Postmodernism can glue anything together.) But in my general experience when it comes to goings on beyond our shores, 9 times out of 10 the Tweedle Dee and Dum of moral relativism and multiculturalism triumph over humanitarianism and feminism.
"Who are we to judge if their societies choose to do that to their women?" "It's not like we can afford to be a global policeman!" "Well it's just as much Israel's fault as the Palestinians. They've just been fighting over there forever and it's not like it'll ever stop, we should just stop picking sides and get out."
When a progressive's brain is all gummed up with postmodern nonsense then any fact you'd fling at them will just get stuck in the sticky outer shell of graduate school-induced, perpetual debate.
[jwplayer config="pjm_lifestyle" mediaid="59481"]
5. Can the Left and Right be reformed?
While David is probably right that framing such issues in terms of Left versus Right, or Democrat versus Republican, is sometimes less than helpful, it is far more detrimental to frame political issues as a matter of Good versus Evil.
The political Left and the political Right can be reformed, but once we start discussing politics as a function of classic Judeo-Christian theology, is there any possibility for compromise?
If the real problem here is a matter of Good versus Evil then what is there possibly to discuss?
I do not believe either the political Left or Right can be "reformed." I believe Right/Left can be useful as political models and for political shorthand but for an activist to make their primary identity devoted to either promoting one side or fighting against the other is a big mistake, primarily for one reason. It gives you a tunnel vision in which you're blinded to the many other evil forces threatening America. Someone committed to Left/Right ideological combat will be blind to the friends and foes who exist outside the narrow confines of this one ideological battle. Reminder: there are masses and masses of people who don't think about politics much and there are huge chunks of the politically engaged who do not focus on Left/Right. It's these people whom we should try and connect with, adapting how we frame our ideas and which messages we emphasize to different cultures and groups.
Michael, when you say "classic Judeo-Christian theology," what exactly do you have in mind? Who are the proponents of this single theology? In my experience wandering through first the Evangelical Christian world as a teenager and more recently the Zionist world in my 20s, the nature of both Judaism and Christianity is of perpetual compromise. Both faiths are about trying to balance competing values. In Christianity this is depicted in the Father-Son-Holy Ghost trinity of God -- Christians find God through balancing and transcending all three symbolic representations of the Divine. This shifting toward an abstract deity beyond comprehension of course has its roots in Judaism. One of my absolute favorite books of late has been Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's The Lonely Man of Faith which explains why there are two different creation narratives in Genesis. Which one is true? They both are -- each position man and God in different relationships and we as people of faith are to perpetually shift between each.
And it's in this understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition that your last question is answered. In all matters of Good vs Evil there is perpetual discussion to be had -- first in identifying the nature of the evil and its source. Then the debate begins about how we are to defeat and utterly annihilate the evil, both in its manifestations that threaten to destroy us outside and our own self-destructive internal demons. We engage these questions in the same manner that we learn how to understand and debate the Torah, the other books of the Bible; for Christians to the New Testament too; and for my other oddball occultists we also juxtapose Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and other esoteric texts. We go back and forth and weigh the scales of justice.
And when, after guided by centuries of human wisdom in weighing Good and Evil and the necessary moral responses, we take action as Moses did in Exodus, and as the Founders sought to emulate in their choice of motto:
The illustration is of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. That is now my primary political priority. I define myself as an Anti-Slavery Republican.
I believe framing the West's battle against the world's Marxist-Islamist criminal slave state alliance is more effective than just harping on the Democrats' indifference to honor killings. Maybe this kind of rhetoric will "alienate" or frighten some. But I'm alright with that. Sometimes provoking people into getting angry is a necessary step in getting them to care at all.
Michael, I thank you for the opportunity for this discussion and look forward to your response.
P.S. And if any other PJ Lifestyle contributors or NRB alumni would like to join this discussion of moral values, political ideology, and how we're going to continue the Breitbartian quest to save the world, by all means, you're welcome to jump in. And of course letters to the editor are always welcome at DaveSwindlePJM[@]gmail.com